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The Political Is Personal: Narrating 9/11 and Psychological Well-Being


  • Project funding was provided by National Science Foundation grant BCS-9910223 to Roxane Cohen Silver. Data collection was conducted while Michael Poulin was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. The authors thank Roxane Cohen Silver for access to the data presented herein. We also thank Dan P. McAdams and The Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University for their guidance and feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.

concerning this article should be addressed to Jonathan M. Adler, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, 2029 Sheridan Road, Swift Hall, Evanston, IL 60208. E-mail:


ABSTRACT Making meaning out of negative experiences is one of the primary psychological challenges in the wake of adversity. Much of the empirical attention that psychologists have paid to meaning making has focused on personal hardships, but national tragedies similarly pose a challenge to meaning making. In the present study, which is grounded in the theoretical tradition of the narrative study of lives, a nationally representative sample of 395 adults wrote accounts about the 9/11 terrorist attacks approximately 2 months after 9/11. Accounts were coded for 3 narrative themes: closure, redemption, and contamination. Psychological well-being was significantly related to accounts that were high in closure and national redemption and, among those more directly exposed to the attacks, accounts high in redemptive imagery. Psychological distress was significantly related to accounts that were low in closure and high in themes of personal contamination. Understanding the narrative styles that characterize personal accounts of political events has important ramifications for the study of the socially embedded individual.